The 1953-1954 Chevrolet Bel Air provides an excellent example of a popular practice in the Detroit of the 1950s called reskinning -- making an old car look new without changing its basic structure by applying different outer panels. Nobody did this better at the time than General Motors, and the 1953-1954 Chevrolet Bel Air proved it.
Swift managerial changes in the late Forties had ushered in Thomas H. Keating as Chevrolet general manager, brimming with confidence about the future and filled with expansive plans for it. By 1952, the division was hard at work on an all-new V-8 for an equally new group of 1955 passenger cars. Meantime, they faced the problem of how to extend the sales life of the basic 1949 platform, then looking pretty long in the tooth. Reskinning was the obvious answer.
The result appeared for 1953 as the most changed Chevrolet in five years. Singer Dinah Shore, Chevrolet's TV spokesperson in those days, introduced it as "a glamorous new star," paused while the camera cut to a close up, then gushingly asked: "Isn't that about the prettiest thing you ever saw?"
We tend to laugh at this commercial now, but the 1953 Chevrolet did look pretty good in its day.
Stylist Carl Renner dressed up the old bodies with fresh sheetmetal below the belt, one-piece windshields (replacing twin-panes), and a prominent oval grille whose three vertical. "teeth" provided a familial resemblance to the forthcoming Corvette sports car. Rear ends on hardtops and sedans gained a bulkier, more "important" look, and introduced bodyside two-toning on Bel Air rear fenders. Artful die changes also reshaped rear side-window openings.
Model-wise, the sole remaining Fleetline fastback sedan disappeared, and the lineup was reordered. At the bottom came the low-price One-Fifty, replacing the previous Special; DeLuxe gave way to the mid-range Two-Ten. This year's top-of-the-line series took the Bel Air name from Chevrolet's 1950-1952 hardtop coupe, which now became a Sport Coupe with two sedans and a convertible as running mates. Lower-series offerings comprised sedans, pillared club coupe, and Handyman wagon, plus One-Fifty business coupe and Two-Ten Townsman wagon, convertible, and Sport Coupe.
On the mechanical side, Chevrolet scrapped its smaller "Stovebolt" six and adopted the 235.5-cubic-inch Powerglide unit for all models. Higher compression boosted it to 105 horsepower with stickshift or 115 with Powerglide. The latter version received aluminum pistons (replacing cast iron) and insert-type rod bearings plus a more modern, pressurized lubrication system. Manual-transmission engines would get these changes for 1954, when the six was retitled "Blue Flame." All this reflected the presence of new chief engineer Edward N. Cole, who'd arrived from Cadillac in May 1952 after working on that division's milestone 1949 V-8.
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The 1953-1954 Chevrolet Bel Air arrived none too soon. Ford, determined to regain sales supremacy, launched an all-out production "blitz" that year as the industry shifted back into high gear with the end of the Korean hostilities. Forced to sell cars they hadn't ordered, Ford dealers resorted to heavy discounting. Chevrolet had no choice but to follow, and the race was on, though Chrysler Corporation and the independents ended up the losers.
For 1954, Ford again face-lifted its new-for-1952 bodies, but stole a march on Chevrolet with a new 239-cid overhead-valve V-8 and ball-joint front suspension. Chevrolet replied with more chrome, a wider grille with more teeth, new taillights, brighter colors, new interior trims, and a fortified six running 115 horses with stickshift (same as that year's 223-cid Ford six), or 125 with Powerglide (versus the Ford V-8's 130).
The One-Fifty business coupe was renamed Utility sedan, while a spiffy two-door sedan called Delray replaced the Two-Ten convertible and hardtop. Finally, the Two-Ten Townsman was upgraded into a Bel Air, bringing the series up to five separate models. New options, most often installed on Bel Airs, included power brakes ($38) and power front seat and front door windows ($86 for either).
Despite Ford's hard press, Chevrolet had added just enough pizazz in 1953 and 1954 to remain "USA-1," producing nearly 1.35 million cars for 1953 (about 100,000 more than Ford) and 1.166 million for 1954 (about 20,000 ahead). The Two-Ten emerged as the volume leader in both years, but the Bel Air finished a creditable second, rare for a flagship line even in those heady days.
The Bel Air's success also indicated that buyers were ready for more upmarket Chevrolets with colorful "living room" interiors; chromier, two-tone exteriors; and ever more convenience options. Indeed, the 1953-1954 Chevy pointed toward the future more than anyone probably realized at the time.
As collector cars, the 1955-1957 Chevrolets will probably always overshadow the 1953-1954 models, but the latter -- especially the Bel Airs -- are being discovered by enthusiasts as very pleasant cars with significance as the last of the low-suds "pre-classic" Chevrolets, an important transition in the make's history. That' s reason enough to include on any collectible car list -- that and the bow-tie badge they wear.
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1953-1954 Chevrolet Bel Air Specifications
The 1953-1954 Chevrolet Bel Air had the performance to keep Chevrolet ahead of Ford in the race for number one. Below are specifications for the 1953-1954 Chevrolet Bel Air:
Engines: ohv I-6, 235.5 cid (3.56 × 3.94) 1953: 105/115 bhp (manual/Powerglide); 1954: 115/125 (manual/ Powerglide)
Transmission: 3-speed manual; 2-speed Power-glide optional
Suspension, front: upper and lower A-arms, coil springs
Suspension, rear: live axle, semi-elliptic leaf springs
Brakes: front/rear drums
Wheelbase (in.): 115.0
Weight (lbs): 3,230-3,540
Top speed (mph): 90
0-60 mph (sec): 15.0